Over the last decade, companies have paid out millions of dollars in sex discrimination suits when business has mixed with topless pleasure. But a new case out of Maine falls into more of a legal "gray area," according to an employment law expert, and reported by The Portland Press Herald.
Every year, residents at the Maine Medical Center attend the Northeast Sports Medicine Conference in Rhode Island and, as part of the festivities, they allegedly spend one night at a strip club getting semi-naked women to writhe on their laps. Patrick O'Brien, a male administrator, says that he complained about the practice and is now suing the hospital for allegedly retaliating against him.
O'Brien says that the residents were pressured to go to the event by their supervising doctors. His lawyer, Barbara Goodwin, told the Press Herald that going to the strip club was "almost a requirement."
"Not only are men being coerced into going, but women are sent back like second-class citizens," Goodwin said. "If the faculty member [a supervising doctor] wants you to go to a strip club, you pack up your stuff and you go."
The Maine Medical Center denies the allegations, and the Maine Human Rights Commission, which dismissed O'Brien's initial complaint, said that the hospital claimed that the supervising doctors responsible for the field trip were disciplined and banned from returning to the strip club at future conferences.
The executive director of the workers' advocacy group, Workplace Fairness, Paula Brantner, isn't hopeful about the lawsuit's prospects. If actual business dealings were happening over shots and dollar bills, or if clients and patients were present and female residents were excluded, then it might qualify as sex discrimination, she said. But if it's just some after-hours frolicking, without any evidence that female workers were somehow disadvantaged by being excluded, then it would be hard to prove a legal violation, she told the Press Herald.
That doesn't mean this kind of activity is wise, she said, "from a management perspective or a moral perspective." Fraternizing strip clubs, however, is a popular activity among employees across almost every industry, reports USA Today, and can be a tax-deductible business expense.
Erotic entertainment has rubbed up against the law in the past, particularly on Wall Street. Morgan Stanley paid out $54 million in 2004 to many of its female employees, one of whom claimed that she was excluded from a client meeting because it was at a strip club. Due to a number of unsavory incidents around this time, the New York Stock Exchange and the National Association of Securities Dealers in 2006 laid out new policies on appropriate venues for talking shop.
But the boys' club apparently didn't disband entirely, and in 2010 three women sued Goldman Sachs for encouraging a culture of sex discrimination typified by "female escorts" in Santa hats who were hired for a holiday party and a strip club jaunt that allegedly ended in a sexual assault.
If business is conducted in an environment with semi-nude women, a lawsuit probably has good ground. The legal issues get more slippery, however, when strip clubs are simply sites for bonding and networking among colleagues, and from which women are excluded because it might dampen the fun for men "by reminding them that women are more than simply bodies to be looked at," in the words of Melbourne University politics professor Sheila Jeffreys.
This is "the new glass ceiling," Jeffreys claims. And if O'Brien's allegations are true, it can knock a man's career down too.
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